Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
The Valley of the Bells for piano
February 18, 2024: Michael Stephen Brown, piano
In his autobiographical sketch Ravel said that his Miroirs of 1904–05 “mark a change in my harmonic development pronounced enough to have upset those musicians who till then had had the least trouble in appreciating my style.” He no doubt referred to his freedom to avoid the home key for long stretches and to use passages of unresolved chords over pedal points.
Ravel’s formal structures in these five “mirrors” of nature were also freer than in his earlier works. When pianist Ricardo Viñes told him that Debussy dreamed of writing “a kind of music whose form was so free that it would sound improvised” (never minding old improvisatory-sounding forms such as fantasias and toccatas!), Ravel told Viñes that he, too, was working along similar principles. Several weeks later Ravel played his free-sounding Miroirs for the Apaches, his circle of Parisian artists.
Ravel dedicated each of the five Miroirs to a fellow Apache—the last of the set, La vallée des cloches, to his only pupil, Maurice Delage. Viñes premiered Miroirs on January 6, 1906, at a concert of the Société Nationale de Musique to mixed reviews, as might be expected in view of Ravel’s remarkable new direction.
La vallée des cloches, Ravel told pianist Robert Casadesus, was inspired by the sound of the Parisian church bells that rang at noon, and, reported Gabriel Fauré, Ravel referred to the bell sound at the end as “la Savoyarde,” the largest bell in the Basilica of Montmartre. Ravel would go on to feature bells in a number of his other works, such as L’heure espagnole, La cathédrale engloutie, and Gaspard de la nuit.
The outer sections of La vallée des cloches depicts five sets of bells, repeating in fragmented phrases at varying rates, with intervals of parallel fourths and octaves prominent to suggest the overtones in the bells’ reverberations. Only in the middle section does a lush melody emerge.
Striking but less obvious is Ravel’s use of larger structural planes, extended in time to create varied overarching patterns, much in the same way the Cubists were breaking up time and space to create illusions of solid objects. Ravel required three staves in the score to facilitate the representation of these layers. He was particular, as pianist Henriette Faure learned in a coaching, that the right-hand carillon and the left-hand high octave bells sound on two very distinct levels, “and the whole thing had to remain within a pianissimo that he could, in some mysterious way, achieve without it sounding feeble. . . . The great calm lyrical outpouring [of the central section], on the other hand, requires a profound sonority and a legato that comes from a hand closely wedded to the keys, and from a weight of arm that one ideally gets from sitting rather low at the keyboard.”
—©Jane Vial Jaffe